The Kindergarten and the Holocaust

Children’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight. This was the first time many had seen a Christmas tree, aglow in the Einlage kindergarten in December 1942. Soldiers handed out wooden toys. They had spent weeks carving them—model houses, schools, churches, city halls, trucks, and trains—while convalescing at the military hospital in this Mennonite village in southeastern Ukraine. The group joined in song, filling the hall with old German Christmas carols. The tunes, which had not been heard openly during the recent years of Bolshevik rule, reminded all those present of the momentous changes wrought since Hitler’s armies had taken control of Ukraine.[^1]

Children march in an October 1942 parade honoring the visit of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to the Halbstadt Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine. Courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Alber Photograph Collection 151-17.

The Mennonite kindergarten in Einlage was a Nazi showpiece. Military engineers and SS agents had helped refurbish the sturdy stone structure, coated with quality oil paints and sporting its own washroom, kitchen, and cafeteria. The kindergarten had steam heating and electric lights. Einlage’s recovering soldiers hailed from all over Germany, but they affectionately termed the town’s youngest members “their children.” In addition to making toys, they had drawn pictures that inducted the kindergarteners into the fantastical world of German fairy tales and myths. Outside, a swastika flag fluttered in the breezes passing over the Ukrainian steppe.[^2]

No other kindergarten in the whole administrative district of Dnipropetrovsk was as magnificent as Einlage’s. Nazi occupiers had counted 10,000 kindergarten-aged children in the area as being of “German blood.” These had been sorted by men in brown uniforms who could be found in all the villages, going door to door and categorizing inhabitants according to “genealogical and racial biological” criteria.[^3] Children deemed to be German were put into a segregated school system—separate and very unequal. The 129 pupils in Einlage happened to the most fortunate of the roughly 5,000 children already organized into the district’s 110 German-only kindergartens.[^4]

We know about the Einlage kindergarten because it was profiled extensively in two Nazi papers that served the Dnipropetrovsk district. The Ukraine Post and the German Ukraine Newspaper regularly featured Einlage and other villages in the Chortitza Mennonite colony. “Chortitza on the Dnieper!” wrote one SS journalist, expressing joy that through the war, readers had become familiar with “the most flourishing” colony in the district’s “chain of German villages.”[^5] Its fame was rivaled only by that of Halbstadt, Ukraine’s largest Mennonite settlement, which became incorporated into Dnipropetrovsk in September 1942 as Nazi civil administration expanded east.[^6]

Nazi civil administration in occupied Ukraine (shaded) had expanded by September 1942 to encompass the region’s three largest Mennonite colonies (in black). This involved Germanizing place names: Halbstadt was previously called Molotschna, while Kronau had been Zagradovka.

Most of Ukraine’s 35,000 Mennonites lived in three colonies: Chortitza and Halbstadt in the Dnipropetrovsk district as well as Kronau in an area called Mykolaiv. This latter district was served by the German Bug Newspaper, named for the local Bug River. Nazi occupiers reported a total of 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Chortitza, 25,000 in Halbstadt, and 13,000 in Kronau. Most inhabitants were of Mennonite background, although each colony—especially Kronau—included numerous Lutherans and a smaller number of Catholics. All three colonies also had Russians and Ukrainians, whom occupiers subjugated or deported. Death squads shot or gassed resident Jews.

It is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Mennonite daily life in Nazi-occupied Ukraine through careful readings of the Ukraine Post, the German Ukraine Newspaper, and the German Bug Newspaper. Scholars must treat these sources cautiously. All three papers’ primary purpose was to circulate propaganda. Their target audiences were German-language readers in Ukraine—including soldiers, bureaucrats, and local Mennonites—as well as interested audiences on the home front. Articles were steeped in anti-communist, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and authors wrote confidently of the Third Reich’s coming victory at a time when the front was already faltering.

Nevertheless, basic information like dates, events, names, and ranks were generally accurate. Selective combing reveals much about Nazi efforts to expand administrative control. Articles tell how local Mennonites joined the army or bureaucracy.[^7] Village names were Germanized.[^8] By October 1942, Chortitza had an operational post office.[^9] Halbstadt’s opened a month later.[^10] One of Dnipropetrovsk’s two courts held session next door.[^11] Occupiers sanctioned businesses like an iron foundry in Chortitza and a machine factory in Halbstadt.[^12] Horse breeding took place, as did silk manufacture.[^13] And tallies are available for grain, milk, and eggs produced in Kronau.[^14]

The nature of these newspapers as propaganda organs makes them valuable for understanding the landscape navigated by local Mennonites. Content and diction reveal how occupiers hoped the region’s “ethnic Germans” would learn to think and act. In May 1943, a Nazi Party rally took place in Mykolaiv. The main speaker thundered that “international Judaism” had started the war: “Whether on the side of the plutocrats or the Bolsheviks, the Jew works everywhere as agitator and provocateur. This war is a race war. We must break the Jewish danger, or we will be broken by it.”[^15] Functionaries fanned across the district, repeating this lie in all twenty-nine of Kronau’s villages.

National Socialists murdered 1.2 million Jews in occupied Ukraine, including tens of thousands in the Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv regions. Propagandists avoided reporting explicitly on the Holocaust. Journalists instead portrayed Jews as aggressors who must be stopped. Jews’ alleged victims were Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans.” The very real deprivations and terrors of Soviet rule were thus ascribed to “Jewish-Bolshevik tyranny.”[^16] Occupiers sized Jewish property and redistributed it, claiming to redress past wrongs. Jubilant reports of one aid action in Kronau mentioned only that the 32,000 clothing and household items were “for the most part used.”[^17]

The same agencies that liquidated Jews provided aid to Mennonites.[^18] Their backdrop was total war. Thousands starved across Ukraine, and the land was pocked with barely-covered mass graves. But Nazi administrators wanted “ethnic Germans” to live happy and whole. “Blossom-white are the dresses and the head coverings of the women and the girls,” remarked one visitor of a Sunday in Chortitza.[^19] Another crowed: “The simple church is no longer a movie theater as in Bolshevik times.”[^20] Both Chortitza and Halbstadt played host to triumphal delegations of the Third Reich’s leading Nazis, including enormous rallies for Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg.[^21]

“You are a piece of Germany!” Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, spoke to thousands of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” in the Chortitza colony in June 1942. Rosenberg and his high-powered entourage visited Halbstadt a year later. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Administrators moved quickly to indoctrinate Mennonites into National Socialism. By December 1941, all able-bodied men in Kronau were organized into a paramilitary German Corps. Boys aged fourteen to seventeen belonged to a German Youth Corps, and their female counterparts aged fourteen to twenty-one joined a League of Ethnic German Girls.[^22] The local Women’s League was responsible for activities like sewing circles and distributing clothing shipments from Auschwitz. Aid workers arrived in the colonies with such organizations as the German Red Cross, the People’s Welfare, and the SS. Chortitza, Halbstadt, and Kronau all received youth delegations from Germany.[^23]

This 1942 feature piece in the wartime Nazi newspaper, Ukraine Post, lauded local Mennonites: “Thanks to their strict lifestyle and their outstanding work ethic, they became the most successful German settlers in the East.”

Occupiers stressed education. Wartime transportation needs initially prevented regular teacher exchanges between Germany and Ukraine. Small groups of professionals therefore held crash courses so that local educators could be “indoctrinated in the National Socialist mindset.”[^24] These specialists organized back-to-back three-week camps in Kronau during the spring of 1942.[^25] Wagon upon wagon of men and women arrived, some from as far as one hundred miles away.[^26] Participants heard lectures on German politics, literature, and art. They then returned to their villages, where schools received Nazi-oriented workbooks and reading materials.[^27]

Kindergartens comprised just one among many types of German-only educational institutions to open in Mennonite colonies. Chortitza’s segregated kindergartens were joined by elementary schools and, in 1943, at least two high schools.[^28] Kronau boasted planned or operational middle schools, high schools, an agricultural school, and a training school for rural women’s work. The orchestra of one institute played Wagner for visiting dignitaries, and pupils pledged loyalty to Reich and Führer from the stage.[^29] A teacher training academy that served as Ukraine’s primary location for cultivating “ethnic German” educational professionals held class in Halbstadt.[^30]

Education prospered both in and out of the classroom. Hitler Youth officers kicked into high gear during the summer of 1943. A third of eligible young people across Dnipropetrovsk already belonged to the German Youth of Ukraine, with the best results from Chortitza and Halbstadt’s “fertile ground.”[^31] Following a leadership training camp, the graduates—forty-two girls and thirty-two boys—staffed camps throughout the district. The grandest lasted six weeks and had 160 participants.[^32] Affirmative action also came to Ukraine. In Chortitza, twenty gifted young people competed for five spots to study in Germany.[^33] Others returned from learning trips to teach true Nazism at home.[^34]

No single school received as much public attention as the Einlage kindergarten. This was the prize institution overseen by “Aunt Müller,” the area’s child education specialist. In 1942, Aunt Müller, who originally hailed from Transylvania, organized a camp for twenty girls and women who would go on to become Chortitza’s kindergarten workforce. They put on a craft exhibition, and those who were particularly quick studies received awards.[^35] Under Aunt Müller’s direction, plans were initiated to expand the school and to board children aged three to seven from outlying villages. The Chortitza iron foundry agreed to repair donated beds.[^36]

It is a miracle.” So wrote a German soldier named Leonhard Froese in 1943. His own daughter attended kindergarten on the home front, and he penned a glowing letter to the German Ukraine Newspaper describing his visit to the school in Einlage. Each day, the building opened by 7:00. At 8:00, the children assembled outside for roll call. The swastika flag would be hoisted, and it was time for athletic exercises. Then everyone would “goose step” through the front door. Each child had a personal cubby for jackets. During field trips, they were divided into three groups by height: giants, dwarves, and Thumbelinas. To Froese’s eye, he could have been in Germany.[^37]

Decades after the Second World War, under entirely different circumstances, I, too, attended a Mennonite kindergarten. My school was in Indiana, not war-torn Ukraine. My parents had not suffered through years of fear and hunger in the Soviet Union. Nor did Bolshevik agents come in the night to shoot my grandfathers or to deport them to gulags. My kindergarten cubby contained a nylon jacket, not some wrap of unknown provenance, perhaps taken from another five-year-old who happened to be born to a Jewish family. Nevertheless, the songs, the laughter, the shouts, and the joy of children at the Einlage kindergarten resonate with me. What a privilege it is to learn.

Precisely such familiarity of experience is what renders Mennonites’ past in wartime Ukraine so chilling. Nazi officials did not hide Einlage’s kindergarten. Unlike the blood-soaked pits virtually a stone’s throw away, writers trumpeted the school in page upon page of propaganda. Education in Einlage was intended to show Nazism’s radiant potential. It represented an alleged antidote to “Judeo-Bolshevism.” It was what the Holocaust was supposed to enable not only in Ukraine, but for all children of “German blood.” Today, historians sift laboriously through archival records to identify Mennonite death squad members. No such work is needed for Einlage’s kindergarteners.

Collective memories of this Holocaust kindergarten have never left us. Mennonites who grew up in Ukraine during the Second World War continue to speak and write with grateful thanks for their generous treatment by the Third Reich. When Hitler’s regime collapsed in 1945 and they became homeless refugees, their plight developed into a cause célèbre for congregations across Europe and the Americas. Their voices and their stories remain heard through film, books, and close family relationships, including my own. Leading Mennonite newspapers in North America still to this day credit Nazi officials with returning a “semblance of normal life” to Ukraine.[^38]

Our denomination, as Christian peace church, must grapple with our history in the Holocaust. This is first and foremost the tale of the Einlage kindergarteners, of Jews murdered so that Mennonites could flourish. Myths of happy wartime children shine with the light of latent anti-Semitism. It is a vital, urgent task to identify and to root out our anti-Semitic narratives. I have never once felt physically endangered because of my faith. But in my country, Jews are gunned down in houses of worship. If you are a Mennonite, if you attended a kindergarten, or if you ever experienced the wonder of singing around a Christmas tree, this story is for you. This is a task for our church.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

[^1]: “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 9, 1943, 8; “Soldaten erfreuen volksdeutsche Kinder,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 29, 1942, 3. All of the newspaper articles cited in this essay are freely available online: https://libraria.ua/en [^2]: Leonhard Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 11, 1943, 8.
[^3]: Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Leistungen deutscher Kolonisten,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung<, August 8, 1942, 3; “Das Bluterbe der Väter,” Ukraine Post, March 6, 1943, 3.
[^4]:“Fürsorge für die Volksdeutschen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 31, 1943, 3; “Es geht wieder vorwärts,” Ukraine Post, August 10, 1943, 8.>
[^5]: “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
[^6]: “Erweiterung des Reichskommissariats,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 2, 1942, 3; “Eingliederung in das Reichskommissariat,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, [^7]: Rudolf Rümer, “Heimkehr in das Volkstum,” Ukraine Post, October 31, 1942, 3.
[^8]: “Alexanderstadt statt Bolschaja-Alexandrowka,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 9, 1942, 4.
[^9]: “Neue Dienstpostämter,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 3, 1942, 3.
[^10]: Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 15, 1942, 3.
[^11]: “Deutsches Gericht in Halbstadt,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 2, 1943, 3.
[^12]: “Amtliche Bekanntmachung,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 12, 1943, 6.
[^13]: “Körordnung für den Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4; “Aufbau der Pferdezucht,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 29, 1943, 3; “Deutscher Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 31, 1943, 3; “Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3.
[^14]: “Volksdeutsche Bauern packen weider an,” Ukraine Post, July 3, 1943, 7.
[^15]: “‘Der Kampf ist hart aber wir sind härter!’” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 29, 1943, 4.
[^16]: “Der Ruf des Reiches an die Volksdeutschen am Schwarzmeer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 16, 1943.
[^17]: “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8.
[^18]: Rudolf Rümer, “Volksdeutsche sind unserer Hilfe sicher,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 22, 1942, 3.
[^19]: “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
[^20]: “Nach deutschem Vorbild,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 2, 1942, 3; “Deutsche Art dringt durch,” Ukraine Post, April 17, 1943, 5.
[^21]: “Führung des europäischen Ostens größte Aufgabe unseres Volkes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 21, 1942, 1; Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Festtag im deutschen Dorf am Dnjepr,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 28, 1942, 3; “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung; “Reichsleiter Rosenberg besuchte die Schwarzmeerdeutschen,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 22, 1943, 3-4.
[^22]: “Aus der Volkstumsarbeit Kronau, Gebeit Alexanderstadt,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 11, 1942, 4; “Der Generalkommissar in Alexanderstadt und Nowibug,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 1, 1942, 4.
[^23]: “Erzähl uns von Deutschland,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 25, 1942, 3; “HJ-Tagebuch in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, 3; “Abschluss der HJ-Fahrt durch den Generalbezirk,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 26, 1942, 4; “Jugend als Sendboten des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 19, 1943, 3; “Harzer Hitlerjungen im Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3; “Regelung des studentischen Osteinsatzes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 4, 1942, 3.
[^24]: “Umschulungslager volksdeutscher Lehrer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 24, 1942, 3.
[^25]: “Umschulungslager für volksdeutsche Lehrer,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, April 8, 1942, 4.
[^26]: “Volksdeutsche Lehrer im Schulungslager,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4.
[^27]: “Der Lehrernachwuchs in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 2, 1942, 3.
[^28]: “Zwei neue deutsche Hauptschulen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 13, 1943, 3.
[^29]: “Schülerheim in volksdeutschem Dorf,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 16, 1943, 3.
[^30]: “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung.
[^31]: “Volksdeutsche Jugend an der Arbeit,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 21, 1943, 3; “Jugend im Gleichschritt,” June 5, 1943, 7.
[^32]: “Volksdeutsche Jugend in froher Gemeinschaft,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 17, 1943, 3.
[^33]: “Ausleselager in Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 15, 1942, 3; “Aufgeschlossen, begabt, einsatzbereit, kameradschaftlich,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 3, 1943, 2.
[^34]: “Die Kinder der ‘Kulaken,’” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 9, 1943, 3.
[^35]:“Für die Volksdeutsche Jugend,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 3, 1943, 3.
[^36]: Rümer, “Heimkerh in das Volkstum.”
[^37]: Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat.”
[^38]: Rich Preheim, “From ‘Tauferkammer’ to Burkina Faso,” Mennonite World Review, December 3, 2018, 6.

Clarke E. Hess (1954-2018)

Editor’s note: The following memorial for Clarke Hess by Carolyn Wenger—currently museum curator and archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which she directed from 1976 to 2001—is excerpted from a tribute she gave at his funeral. Hess was heavily involved in Lancaster Mennonite history, with a special emphasis on material culture, as expressed in Mennonite Arts, published in 2002. He passed away from complications from ALS on November 7, 2018.

Carolyn C. Wenger

A bit over four years ago, as it became apparent that Clarke’s physical ability to participate in Historical Society activities was declining, I was asked by the board to write a tribute, which I read to him at a board dinner in his honor. A short time later (April 6, 2014) it was also read to him at our more public Annual Banquet. I want to share that, now, with you.

*  *  *  *  *  *

While still in high school, Clarke was already researching in the Society library on a regular basis, having become passionate about history from his grade-school years on up. At a young age he developed an exceptional feel for what had enduring value. In 1981, as a twenty-six-year-old, he joined the LMHS board and served thirty years, until limited by new term rules. On board meeting nights his sunny-yellow Sting Ray sat in the parking lot, along with the more subdued colors and models of other, older board members. But that was OK. That was Clarke’s car.

In his gentle unassuming manner, he cultivated friendships and amazingly educated himself through association with a wide array of collectors, educators, and curators—always listening, learning, documenting objects, and winning people’s confidence. He even taught himself to read old German-script handwriting. He went far beyond what many historians have done with academic degrees.

He served on the Society’s Genealogy Committee for decades, helping to oversee the successful family history conference. For the annual fundraiser, the outdoor Bookworm Frolic, he and his family partnership at Hess Homebuilders and Precision Wall &Truss provided valued support in the form of loaned lumber and suggested the use of trestles instead of earlier hay bales for tables. Clarke provided the table layout for the event. He also wrote a variety of historical and genealogical articles for Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage.

Through his own contributions and personal contacts, he helped acquire some of the Society’s most valuable artifacts, which have been exhibited at the Society, loaned for other museum exhibits, pictured in books, and reproduced for sale. I specifically remember a Farmersville auction in the 1980s that we both attended. My heart was pounding as he sat beside me, encouraging me to keep bidding, knowing that we would have to solicit donations to cover the cost. Until that point I had never spent so much money at one time, that the Society or I did not have. Even though several board members were unhappy with me, time proved the purchases to be wise—in fact, a chance of a lifetime.

As chair of our Museum Committee, he gave valued leadership to collection-development and exhibit policies. He also led historical field trips for the Society and presented lectures or seminars as part of the educational program. He served on the Society’s 1992 Building Committee, when expansion became necessary, and as his pet project oversaw the documentation, moving, and installation of the nearby Landis Cabin log wall in our museum, along with reconstruction of the fireplace.

As the Society was still educating itself and its constituency about the educational role of a museum and had completed the initial process of restoring the 1719 Herr House, he joined its Administrative Committee and helped to develop that site and its policies. He also influenced the decision to correct the initial roof restoration to provide a front overhang to the house as it is now.

With his book, Mennonite Arts, his multiple liaisons with other area cultural institutions, and his photographic memory, he helped—more than any other one person—to educate the church and the public about Mennonite material culture. He restored his 1744 Hess ancestral homestead and made it into a first-rate Mennonite museum, which he willingly shared with friends and the public.

Among all of his activities and accomplishments outside the realm of the Society—and I certainly cannot name them all—were curating a historical exhibit comparing Mennonite arts in Ontario and Pennsylvania. He has been associated locally with the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, Landis Valley Museum, the former Heritage Center, the Lancaster County Historical Society, and care of the historic Hans Hess Cemetery. He served as a board member of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley in Ephrata, where he curated an exhibit on, of all things, privy bags. He also actively helped to rescue and restore the Stoner House with the Manheim Township Historical Society. In addition, as a dealer in antiques and with Lee’s technical help, he wrote an internet blog on Mennonite material culture and events and maintained a website on Lititz area farmsteads.

Clarke, we love you and look forward to your continued involvement with us as you are able. As a brother in the Mennonite faith community, we recognize the unique place you have filled and continue to fill among us. We are deeply grateful that you have dedicated your years of study, collecting, documenting, and educating to raise historical awareness among the public, but especially among your Mennonite family—past, present, and future. Thank you!

*  *  *  *  *  *

As a recipient of God’s love, Clarke reflected this love to others through unselfish sharing of his artifacts and their beauty with persons he knew to be related to the items, with visitors to his home, and with neighboring museums. For him, artifacts served as symbols beyond themselves of a larger reality of time, place, and context. They also connected him with an extended Mennonite family and faith tradition—a heritage past, present, and future.

As we wondered why in God’s providence ALS should be permitted to afflict such a caring, devoted, and knowledgeable individual, he nevertheless inspired visitors with his patient, uncomplaining acceptance of his lot and his always-cheerful disposition. This was his unfailing witness to us, his friends and family, as he lived out his faith.

Clarke followed his calling as long as he was able—to the final click of his computer mouse, and he left us on the most beautiful day of the year. Grateful that we had him as long as we did, and yet not wanting to prolong his struggle with the courageous process of living, we surrender him to God’s all-wise timing, knowing that a part of each of us dies with him in this life. Yet, we have the blessed hope that now his quests are fulfilled and that the veil of this life, through which we see darkly, has for him been removed so that all is now light, truth, and new life.

Necessary Idealism: A History of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate

While the legacies of Anglo and French schooling are well studied, Canada also has a long history of religious schools founded by ethnic groups that were neither English Protestants, nor French Catholics. The Mennonites, for example, were convinced to immigrate to Canada in the late nineteenth century in part by federal government promises that they could create their own education system. Mennonite interest in education, according to John W. Friesen, can be traced back to Prussian Mennonites who believed in a minimalist education that would “perpetuate the German language and acquaint their children with the Bible and Mennonite distinctives.”[^1]

A popular contemporary perception of ethno-religious private schools such as those of the Mennonites is that they were created to perpetuate narrow understandings of religious belief, and to limit—or at least carefully direct—the integration of students with the wider society in which they found themselves. The history of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba provides some contrast to this perception. Westgate was established as much as an alternative to existing Mennonite schools as to the public school system. Its founders believed the existing Mennonite high schools in the province of Manitoba provided too narrow a perspective, both religiously and socially. The formation was thus the opposite of a trend that had occurred among Mennonites in the United States a generation earlier. There, schools like Hesston College were formed in part as an objection to the perceived laxity of older Mennonite institutions like Goshen College[^2]

Westgate

Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, originally known as Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), was founded by Mennonites in Winnipeg in 1958. It is one of hundreds of small ethnic private schools that had proliferated across Canada by the mid-twentieth century.[^3] The particular form of ethno-religious identity that the school attempted to inculcate in students differed from the Mennonitism promoted by other Mennonites in the province, and also changed over time. As a result, the school’s history—and possibly the history of other, similar schools—defies simple categories of assimilation or cultural resistance.

Victor Peters, one of Westgate’s founders, promoted a vision of the school as an alternative to Anglo-Canadian assimilation, even as he invoked Anglo-Canadian scholars and politicians in support of his perspective. The school’s objective was not to preserve a static representation of Mennonite culture and belief, but—in his words—to “take on the good aspects” of non-Mennonites while “discarding the less valuable aspects” of Mennonite tradition.[^4] Over the years, this process resulted in Westgate defining Mennonitism in ways that at times led to demands that the school enforce exactly the kind of static definition of identity the founders had wanted to avoid.

In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the school in 2007, Westgate commissioned the writing of their history. This peer-reviewed publication is now in print at CMU Press. The book’s title, Necessary Idealism, is taken from the initial conversations of the nine men and one woman who met in February 1957, to discuss forming a new Mennonite high school in Winnipeg. Doing so, they concluded, would require not only significant funds but also “the necessary idealism.” This idealism was tested throughout the school’s history, both by those within and without, and the school changed somewhat in response. Despite those changes, the core nature of the school persisted: Westgate was an alternative, not only to the secular world, but to the limits of the Mennonite one.

[^1] John W. Friesen, “Studies in Mennonite Education: The State of the Art.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 133.
[^2] John Ellsworth Hartzler, Education Among the Mennonites of America Danvers IL: The Central Mennonite Publishing Board, 1925), 165.
[^3] See T. Krukowski, “Canadian Private Ethnic Schools,” Comparative Education 
4, no. 3 (June 1968): 199-204.
[^4] Westgate Mennonite Collegiate archives, untitled typescript with handwritten notation: “V. Petersan die Gruenderversammlung”

New Approaches to the Radical Reformation: Report from the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference 2018

The annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference (SCSC) is the principal forum in which North American (and, to a much lesser extent, European) historians of the Radical Reformation and early modern Anabaptists present fresh results from their research. In these subject areas, the most recent meeting, held in Albuquerque from November 1-4, featured the broadest participation and widest range of research topics since I began attending in 2011. The following is a brief report of the conference, by no means comprehensive but focused on salient questions and themes around which research energies are focused.

A plenary roundtable on “New Approaches to the Radical Reformation,” organized by Geoff Dipple (University of Alberta, Augustana) and sponsored by the Society for Reformation Research, centered discussion around definitions and methods. The most provocative proposal came from Michael Driedger (Brock University), who suggested that historians discard altogether the session’s organizing principle, the Radical Reformation, as a historical phenomenon or framework for research. In his view, the category is inescapably problematic. It reflects early modern majorities’ descriptions of nonconformists too closely, a point Jim Stayer reinforced in his engaging historiographical survey. Instead, Driedger proposes studying post-Reformation religious radicalism as a sociological phenomenon which, once outlined, can be compared with other radicalisms across time and space. Amy Nelson-Burnett (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) echoed Driedger’s critique of the concept of Radical Reformation, suggesting that her work tracing patterns of dissent in early Reformation debates about the sacraments embeds “radicals” in the messy middle, rather than on the margins, of a broader conversation. Kat Hill (Birkbeck College, University of London) also spoke of the benefits of comparative analysis and of reevaluating Anabaptism in light of the insights of post-colonial history or the history of sexuality, for example. However, she highlighted the importance of “holding the difference” or, in other words, finding ways to emphasize features which distinguished specific “radical” communities from their neighbors and shaped a set of unique group identities over the long term. In keeping with this observation, one suggestion of my own contribution was that distinctive Anabaptist religious cultures remain legible in archival collections, despite the distorting effects of early modern and modern record-producing and -keeping practices.

Challenges to the categorization of post-Reformation radicalism in works like George H. Williams’ Radical Reformation (1962) are not new. Nonetheless, this framework remains durable–it continues to bring together scholars (at conferences like the SCSC) who work on topics of research which would otherwise be only loosely connected. Thus, the roundtable, and the question period, brought to the surface a series of important questions. If we were to take Driedger’s proposition seriously, what would be gained and lost? With which larger conceptual frameworks would we be left that might bring our interests together? Would there be any value in keeping a shared conversation among this group of scholars going, at least as intensively as we have done? There are not only historiographical consequences to how these issues are addressed, but also implications for the networks that historians of the early Reformation and Anabaptist religious cultures build and maintain.

Subsequent sessions provided a type of response to these questions. On the one hand, sets of papers illustrated the curious pairing of topics that an organizing concept like the Radical Reformation produces. Presenters forwarded engaging arguments about early modern catechisms, English Baptist views of natural wonders, and the development of Anabaptist masculinities, but it was not immediately clear how to synthesize or connect these findings. At the same time, the richness and breadth of fresh research projects suggested a renewed vitality in the field. In addition to engaging presentations on the intellectual history of the early Reformation, participants addressed issues of gender and the family, migration and mobility, archives, and material culture. Papers exhibited experimentation with new approaches to evidence and an alteration of familiar chronological and geographical parameters into which the history of Anabaptists has fallen.

Most encouraging is that this research really demonstrates the type of deep engagement and comparative work with broader scholarly debates that roundtable discussants had promoted. As a result, historians of “radicals” and Anabaptists are bringing new conversation partners into their ongoing discussions–as demonstrated by significantly increased attendance at and participation in these sessions. Perhaps broadening interest in this body of research should not surprise, given shared and growing concerns around majority-minority interactions, mobility and migration, and the nature and consequences of cultural and religious difference. This elevated level of engagement might event serve as an argument in favor of holding on to the Radical Reformation for a bit longer, even if only to keep these fruitful interchanges going.

List of Presentations

Inevitably, each presentation’s richness is lost in the report above. This list provides names of presenters and presentation titles, hinting at the variety in papers’ contents and approaches.

  • Bonikowske, Adam M. (University of Arizona) “Anabaptist Masculinity and Civic Refusals in Southern Germany and Switzerland: Revisiting Gender History”
  • Davis, Cory D. (University of Arizona) “That Our Manors May Be Rebuilt: Palatine Landlords and Toleration of Anabaptist Immigrants, 1650-1672”
  • Dipple, Geoffrey (University of Alberta, Augustana) “What were Hans Denck and Ludwig Hätzer doing in Worms in 1527?”
  • Lowe, Jessica C. (Vanderbilt University) “Inheritors of the Radical Reformation? Children of Münster Anabaptists and Dialogues around Dispossession”
  • Hill, Katherine (Birkbeck College, University of London) “Pottery Wars: Materials Cultures in Anabaptist Communities and Diasporic Identity”
  • Lambert, Erin (University of Virginia) “The ‘Gospel of All Creatures’ Reconsidered: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Early Reformation”
  • Martinuzzi, Chris (DePaul University) “Attitudes towards Turks, Jews, and Heathens in the Works and Correspondence of Early Reformers and Anabaptists”
  • Nelson Burnett, Amy (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) “Culture of Persuasion or Streitkultur?: The Flensburg Disputation of 1529”
  • Neufeld, David Y. (University of Arizona) “Knowledge Production and Repressive Action: Anabaptist-Reformed Relations in Zurich’s Archives”
  • Randolph, Jacob B. (Baylor University) “Polemic as Catechesis: Instruction and Opposition in the First Anabaptist Catechism”
  • Smith, Joshua C. Smith (Baylor University) “Whirlwinds, Sudden Death, and an Army of Toads: Baptist Prodigies of the 1660s”
  • Vice, Roy L. (Wright State University) “Reading the ‘Twelve Articles’ to the Rebels of 1525”
  • Zhao, Julia Q. (University of Notre Dame) “‘I have already died’: Baptism and Conversion in Early Anabaptist Martyrdom Literature”

Voices of Conscience

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It has been forty-five years since the elimination of the draft in the United States. More than two generations of Mennonite men and women have grown up without the threat of having their convictions put through the test through conscription and conscientious objection. Lloy Kniss, a WWI-era CO, stated in his 1971 pamphlet “I Couldn’t Fight: the Story of a CO in World War I” that he “believe[s] our church needs to learn again to suffer for the faith when it becomes necessary.”1 

Though written in 1971, these are timely words for those of us in the Mennonite church today who have grown accustomed to the comfort and privilege gained through assimilation and prosperity these past forty years. Remembering the sacrifice of those in the past, as well as critically examining our complicity in our country’s glorification of war and the military industrial complex, is important to deepen the understanding of Anabaptist pacifism, its roots, and its implications today.

For this reason I was pleased that the “Voices of Conscience” exhibit came to Eastern Mennonite University this October. This exhibit, from the Kauffman Museum in Bethel, Kansas, has been travelling throughout the country for the past year.

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The exhibit is thoroughly researched and well-presented. It expertly captures the zeitgeist of the time period through photos, maps, posters, and cartoons that illustrate the patriotism and war fever sweeping the nation.  The exhibit conveys how the nonresistance and pacifism of Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups was not favorably received by a public keen to support the United States and its allies. Some pacifists were harassed, endured property damage, and, in extreme cases, were nearly killed for their refusal to take up arms or support the war effort. 

The scope of the exhibit is broad, providing visitors an insight into the peace work and war resistance done by other faith groups in the United States as well as political organizations like Socialists, Anarchists, and the Woman’s Peace Party. The global nature of World War I also inspired conscientious objection in other countries, and the stories of COs in countries such as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Japan are also highlighted.

The exhibit also hits close to home for those of us in the Shenandoah Valley, as it mentions the trial of Rhine Benner and L.J. Heatwole. In the summer of 1918 Benner, a Mennonite mission worker in Job, WV, wrote to his bishop, Heatwole, for advice about what to advise his congregation to do in regards to the purchase of war bonds. Heatwole advised him to “contribute nothing to a fund used to run the war machine.”2 The letter found its way to officials in D.C. and subsequently Benner was briefly jailed, Heatwole was indicted, and both were put on trial for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 by instructing their parishoners to not buy U.S. bonds and War Savings Stamps. They pled guilty and we each fined $1,000 (roughly $16,000 in today’s money).3

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The Eastern Mennonite University Archives also has a small collection of papers from conscientious objectors in World War I. We created a display to highlight these stories and compliment the material covered in the Voices of Conscience exhibit.

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C.O. Cooks Camp Lee 1918

CO cooks at Camp Lee, Virginia

 

Camp Lee COs 1918

COs at Camp Lee, Virginia 1918

The Voices of Conscience exhibit is on display at Eastern Mennonite University through November 17. I encourage all who are in the area to come see it, or visit the exhibit’s website to learn where it will go next.


  1. Kniss, Lloy A. 1971. I Couldn’t Fight : The Story of a CO in World War I. Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, [1971], 23. 
  2.  Letter from Heatwole to Benner, I-MS-1, Box 22.1, “World War I” folder. Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives.  
  3.  Homan, Gerlof D. 1994. American Mennonites and the Great War, 1914-1918. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History: No. 34. Waterloo, Ont. ; Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1994, 97-98. 

America’s Pastor and the “Quiet in the Land”: Billy Graham and North American Anabaptists, Part II

Author’s Note: Earlier this year, while reflecting on the death of Billy Graham, I promised a multi-part series examining the long history of North American Anabaptist engagement with American evangelicalism, and especially the towering figure of Graham himself. In my first post, I described the ways in which primarily white Anabaptists in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches looked favorably upon Graham and his evangelistic empire. In this post, I explore some of the negative reactions to “America’s pastor.” In a final post, I plan to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth century America.  

In 1967, the National Association of Evangelicals celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. At a commemorative banquet at the Statler Hilton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the evangelist Billy Graham delivered a keynote sermon that featured all the trappings of a classical white evangelical remonstration. He warned against the liberty-imperiling advance of secularism and Communism; he described the urgent need for global revival; he prophesied the imminent return of Christ; and he proposed born-again religion as the solution for America’s moral crisis. The nearly 1,000 banquet attendees greeted Graham’s message with a standing ovation.1

Among those applauding Graham’s oration that night were C. N. Hostetter Jr., and Arthur Climenhaga, two leaders in the mid-century North American Brethren in Christ Church. Both expressed favorable reactions to Graham’s speech and to the anniversary celebration itself in the denominational press and in subsequent reflections.2 And indeed, as part of the celebration, both men posed for a snapshot with the famed evangelist.

Five white men pose for a photograph

In this 1967 photo, two Brethren in Christ leaders—C. N. Hostetter Jr. (second from left) and Arthur Climenhaga (fourth from left)—pose next to the evangelist Billy Graham (fifth from left) at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the National Association of Evangelicals. Also pictured are NAE officials Clyde Taylor (first from left) and Herbert Graffam (third from left). (Source: Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.)

Though smiling brightly alongside America’s pastor in this photo, neither Hostetter nor Climenhaga had always looked favorably upon Graham and his ministry—as we shall shortly see. Indeed, although many Brethren in Christ and their Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren contemporaries celebrated, emulated, and participated in Graham’s evangelistic empire, still others from these Anabaptist communities reacted negatively to Graham.

Anabaptist critiques of Billy Graham typically fell into one of two categories: ecclesial or theological. Ecclesial critiques tended to frame Graham’s ministry as too emotional, too greedy, or too popular—and therefore, and most importantly, a threat to Mennonite churchliness. In other words, these critics contended that the bright lights and big crowds associated with Graham might draw people and money away from Mennonite congregations.

Examples of this kind of critique abound. Writing in the Gospel Herald in 1953, and responding specifically to reports of revival campaigns carried out under the auspices of the Mennonite-related Christian Layman’s Evangelism Inc. but referring obliquely to Graham’s ministry, the editor Nelson Kauffman opined,

The large crowds of our time give us a false sense of values. The man who can fill a big auditorium is by no means always the man with the most important message. . . . Every big crowd is pervaded by a strong emotional factor.3

A similar report came from a Mennonite layman who attended one of Graham’s crusades in Virginia in the late 1950s. In an article in the Gospel Herald, Moses Slabaugh gave a generally ambivalent assessment of the Graham campaign. He appreciated that the “message was simple and Christ was lifted up as Savior of men,” although he objected to the choir and especially the coiffeur of its female members. (“Cut hair and jewelry were very much in evidence,” he observed.) In his conclusion, he pointed to his real concern about such mass meetings: that they sap human and financial resources away from the local congregation.

My concern is this: Are we equally as zealous at home as we were to go to Richmond? Could you spill a little enthusiasm for your home pastor and the evangelism of the lost as you did for Billy? Would you lose sleep and travel miles for the work of the kingdom at home?4

Slabaugh’s concern that Graham crusades might draw financial resources away from local congregations and into the evangelist’s coffers indicates a wariness among Mennonites about Graham’s personal finances—another sign of his “big-ness.” Such was the topic of the editor G. D. Huebert’s 1962 article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. In the piece, Huebert assured readers that they should not worry about Graham for financial reasons. Charges that Graham was a “multi-millionaire,” Huebert contended, were false; the evangelist made a “regular salary” of $15,000. Moreover, Huebert guaranteed his readers that Graham’s organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was incorporated as a non-profit and regularly audited. Though positive in its assessment of Graham, Huebert’s article nevertheless takes for granted that at least some of its Mennonite Brethren readers harbor concerns about Graham’s financial extravagance.

A magazine cover. It is an emerald green color and features the words "Mennonite Brethren Herald" in white at the top of the page. In the middle of the page is a white box with text, featuring an image of Billy Graham speaking to an audience while holding an open Bible.

The cover of the February 1962 issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. The cover story offered an “evaluation” of Graham, including his personal finances. (Source: Borrowing Bones blog)

Still other Anabaptists objected to Graham not on ecclesial grounds, but on theological ones. Reflecting the influence of Protestant fundamentalism, one Mennonite Brethren writer penned an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald addressing the question, “Is Billy Graham liberal?” Starting in the late 1950s, fundamentalists had started asking such questions about the evangelist because of his decision to cooperate with mainline Protestants and Catholics in conducting his 1957 New York City crusade. The article’s author, former Mennonite Observer editor Leslie H. Stobbe, concluded in an unambiguous “no.” Far from compromising, Stobbe contended, Graham “was taking every opportunity to assail modernist and neo-orthodox theological weaknesses.” Indeed, according to Stobbe, counselor trainees coming from “non-fundamentalist” churches were being converted themselves during the crusades. And on the rare occasions that Graham appeared to used “neo-orthodox terminology” in his sermons, Stobbe claimed, he actually meant a term used by fundamentalists. For instance, Graham may have said “commitment” but he meant “to be saved.”

Again, Stobbe gave a positive assessment of Graham—but his decision to even address the question of Graham’s alleged liberalism suggests that at least some Mennonite Brethren harbored such critiques of the evangelist.

Certainly other Anabaptists were concerned about Graham’s potential liberalism. The Brethren in Christ missionary and bishop Arthur Climenhaga, for example, who posed smilingly alongside the evangelist in 1967 did not always possess such affinity for Graham. Climenhaga confessed in his memoirs that he initially opposed Graham for “mixing in a bit too much on certain wide theological levels.”5 This phrasing suggests a covert reference to Graham’s 1957 decision to cooperate with mainliners and Catholics. Climenhaga later changed his mind about Graham, particularly after working alongside the evangelist when he came to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1960. Climenhaga would later serve as executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, in which role he worked closely and frequently with Graham.6

Other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ objected on more conventionally Anabaptist theological grounds. They looked askance at the evangelist’s embodiment of American nationalism and his implicit if not-always-explicit support for war and militarism. For instance, as a doctoral student living in Amsterdam in 1954, the future Eastern Mennonite College and University of Amsterdam professor Irvin B. Horst lobbed such a critique at the globe-trotting evangelist. Horst reported on Graham’s services in that city. While he praised Graham’s skills as an evangelist and concluded that evangelists “are direly needed in our sinful world,” Horst nevertheless had criticisms of Graham and his style:

He is certainly not an Amos or a Jeremiah and has very little perception of the social and economic implications of the Gospel. Unlike the early Christians and Anabaptists, [he sees] . . . no tension between his program and the powers of this world. . . . [W]ith the sensation that goes with evangelism we must not unthinkingly consider evangelism the sole work of the church or the note of repentance the complete message of the Gospel.”7

Black and white photo of four men sitting around a table with food on it.

In this photo from the Oct. 21, 1961 issue of the Evangelical Visitor, Billy Graham (third from left) meets with representatives of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches to discuss his views on war and peace

Horst’s critique of Graham on the basis of his conformity to “the world” parallels another Anabaptist critique of Graham: that he was too uncritical about war and military violence. Indeed, this view of Graham among some North American Anabaptists prompted several leaders within Mennonite Central Committee to invite Graham to a sit-down discussion about war, peace, and nonresistance. The discussion, held over breakfast in Philadelphia during Graham’s 1961 crusade in that city, including some of the luminaries of MCC at that time, including Mennonites John C. Wenger and Elmer Neufeld, and Brethren in Christ C. N. Hostetter Jr.

According to the scant records available about the gathering, MCC leaders apparently hoped to convince Graham of the gospel message of peace. In turn, Graham—then at the apex of his national popularity—would proclaim that message far beyond the bounds of American Anabaptism. Reports suggested that Graham politely listened to leaders’ presentations and then declared himself in agreement with “about 99%” of what they had said. He then “commented briefly on the problems involved in taking the nonresistant position, but noted the uncertainty and confusion among Christians regarding the proper attitude toward participation in war. He stated his personal openness and interested in meeting for more extended discussion on the doctrine of nonresistance.” (To learn more about this meeting, check out my previous post on the topic.)

A few observations about these critiques of Graham. First, they appear to cut across the various factions within mid-twentieth century white North American Anabaptism. Both “acculturated” and more conservative Anabaptists had difficulties with Graham’s message and style. More conservative Anabaptists tended to critique his “big-ness,” by which I mean his conformity to certain expectations of middle-class, white Protestant culture. More acculturated Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worried about the extent to which he had been infected by liberal theology and by his patriotic nationalism. Importantly, more acculturated Anabaptists also saw Graham as a potential ally; the MCC leaders who met with him in 1961 wanted to convert him to nonresistance and then use his platform to spread this theological message. (They also noted that they also sought from Graham “a word which might encourage and stimulate our churches to become more evangelistic.”)

Second, these criticisms tell us much about the ideological diversity of mid-century Anabaptists (especially white Anabaptists). Clearly some Mennonites and Brethren in Christ were moving in circles in which the specter of “liberal theology” still functioned as a cultural boogeyman. Others were engaged in transnational exchanges in which they worried about the importation of white, middle-class North American values into global marketplaces. Still others were institution builders who saw media coverage and Graham’s celebrity as something upon which they could capitalize as they advanced, say, the humanitarian work and the peace education programs of MCC.

Such diverse impulses should remind us that there was no singular “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist response” to Graham or to the post-World War II evangelical Protestantism that he represented—an observation that has not characterized much of the historiography on Anabaptist-evangelical relations since the 1970s. (I’ll say more about this historiography in my next post.) It should also remind us about who is missing from our portraits of Anabaptist encounters with Billy Graham—that is, it should call to mind the forms of Anabaptist diversity glossed over by the historians and archivists whose work has visibly and invisibly shaped our scholarship and public memory.

So, why does any of this analysis matter? Short of remembering Graham in the wake of his recent death, why should we care about Anabaptist responses to and encounters with the evangelist and his ministry? In the third post in this short series, I want to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth-century America. Stay tuned!

NOTES:


  1. On the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration and Graham’s speech, see “Certainty in a World of Change,” United Evangelical Action, May 1967, 11-14. 
  2. On Hostetter and Climenhaga’s reactions to Graham and the NAE celebration, see John N. Hostetter, “NAE Celebrates Twenty-Five Years,” Evangelical Visitor, April 24, 1967, 2, and Arthur Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 370, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives (Mechanicsburg, Pa.). 
  3. Nelson E. Kauffman, “Report of the First Annual Meeting of Christman Layman’s Evangelism, Inc.,” Gospel Herald, February 3, 1953, 102-103. 
  4. Moses Slabaugh, “We Went to Hear Billy Graham,” Gospel Herald, October 23, 1956, 1012. 
  5. Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 262, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives. 
  6. For more on Climenhaga, see Harvey R. Sider, Casting a Long Shadow: A Biography of Arthur Merlin Climenhaga (Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004). 
  7. Irvin B. Horst, “Graham and Boniface,” Gospel Herald, August 3, 1954, 729. 

The Language Nonproblem of the Old Orders

Mark L. Louden

Fifty years ago, on November 18–20, 1968, a symposium was hosted by the Department of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas at Austin on the topic of “The German Language in America.” As the oldest and most widespread German-American variety, Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) figured prominently in three of the five papers read at the symposium, as well as in a sixth paper on the language in Virginia and West Virginia that was added to a 1971 anthology based on the symposium.1

Although today nearly all active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and Old Order Mennonites communities, in the 1960s traditional Anabaptist sectarians were not yet on the radar of most students of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture, including the participants at the Texas symposium. Rather it was the “church people” or “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly eighteenth-century Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants from southwestern Germany, Switzerland, and Alsace, who were regarded by scholars as the main standard bearers of a distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture. This made sense, since well into the twentieth century the church people greatly outnumbered their fellow Pennsylvania Dutch speakers who were Amish or Mennonite.

In one of the few references to Plain people at the symposium, one presenter, Heinz Kloss (1904–1987), a German linguist whose disturbing past during the Nazi era has been closely examined in recent years, shared the following thoughts about the possible utility of government-funded Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) programs for German-American communities.2

In the last two decades over two hundred church schools have come into being among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. Perhaps the FLES idea could be introduced into such denominational schools. The anemic, mutilated written German of the Amish, garbled and unintelligible as it sometimes is, could thereby be infused with new life so as to render it once again a vital, enduring component of their culture.3

Later in his paper, Kloss described Amish and also Hutterite children as “linguistically handicapped.”4

What was the basis for Kloss’s harsh assessment of the linguistic situation of the Old Orders? He was not referring directly to their Pennsylvania Dutch, but to the variety of standard German that has always occupied an important place in the sociolinguistic identity of not only Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Amish and Mennonites, but Hutterites and Old Colony Mennonites as well. Maintenance of a vernacular German-based language—Pennsylvania Dutch (Deitsch), Hutterite German (Hutterisch), and Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch)—in these groups goes hand-in-hand with the continued use of a form of what is known as High German in worship. Kloss compared the High German he encountered in sectarian communities in America with his native language and found it severely deficient for reasons I will discuss here.

A few words about High German are in order. High German takes its name from the dialects spoken in the central and southern regions of Central Europe (including alpine Switzerland) where the elevation is relatively high. Northern Germany is, by contrast, the home of Low German dialects, which are closely related to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium and France.

Today’s High German, the standard variety used in education and media, traces its origins to written dialects from the central and southern German-speaking regions, especially the so-called chancery dialects used in sixteenth-century central-eastern Germany, where the modern states of Saxony and Thuringia are located. Martin Luther, who hailed from this area, is often mistakenly described as the father of modern German, the belief being that his translation of the Bible established the basis for today’s standard variety. Luther drew on the chancery dialects of his native region for his popular Bible translation, which certainly helped advance the spread of “High German” beyond Saxony and Thuringia into regions, particularly northern Germany, where the Reformation was most successful, but he did not actually create the High German standard language.

For the next nearly four hundred years, until the turn of the twentieth century, High German was used almost exclusively in writing and was subject to a high degree of regional variation. Even today, High German is not uniform, with differences in vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and even grammar found across the three major German-speaking countries, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The situation is, of course, the same with the “World Englishes” spoken in places as far-flung as Delhi, New York, and New Delhi, India.

In the eighteenth century, when the earliest ancestors of today’s Old Orders left Europe for America, their sociolinguistic situation was typical: they spoke regional dialects and read and wrote a form of High German that was strongly influenced by their everyday speech. In America, Amish and Mennonites, along with their Lutheran and Reformed neighbors and members of other groups, developed a language, Pennsylvania Dutch, that resembled the dialects of the Palatinate region, from which most of the founder population had come. High German was the main language of literacy that was used in worship and taught in parochial schools. Historical documents suggest that at least as early as the nineteenth century, original “German” sermons were actually delivered in Pennsylvania Dutch, interspersed with quotations from Scripture in High German. The standard variety was essentially just read, recited, or sung; there is no evidence to suggest that Pennsylvania Dutch speakers could converse in High German, much as their distant cousins in back in Europe basically spoke only Palatine German and other dialects.

In the nineteenth century, especially after the founding of the German Empire in 1871, as German speakers became more mobile and came more frequently into contact with people who spoke what often were mutually unintelligible dialects, the need to establish norms for High German increased, affecting vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and eventually also pronunciation. The efforts to standardize High German accelerated in the first half of the twentieth century, when Heinz Kloss was born, and the use of a normative form of the language became an important marker of social status.

Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Anabaptists were largely unaware of the changes affecting High German in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their communication needs were well served by their knowledge of three languages, Pennsylvania Dutch for oral communication within their community, High German for use in worship and some writing, and English, which was vital for their economic survival but also became the dominant medium of active literacy, as it replaced German in schools. The Old Orders’ High German has to this day retained many of the characteristics of the variety their forebears brought with them from eighteenth-century Europe. Outsiders, including European Germans and German Americans, often held “Amish High German” in the same low regard as Heinz Kloss did. Such critical views had little effect on tradition-minded Anabaptists whose ancestors had experienced much worse from the “world” they had always wanted to keep at arm’s length.

There were others who found fault with Amish and Mennonites in America who “kept Dutch” and also High German, namely progressive Mennonites. One of the most prominent critics of his Old Order cousins was none other than Harold S. Bender (1897–1962). In the Mennonite Encyclopedia, of which he was a founding editor, Bender wrote an essay whose title, “Language Problem,”5 suggests its largely negative thesis.

Bender begins his essay by acknowledging that the maintenance of uniquely in-group languages served Anabaptists well historically as a useful expression of “nonconformity to the world.” “On the other hand,” Bender continues,

… the language breach has usually prevented a program of active evangelism and outreach, and has imposed a necessary system of private or parochial schools. As long as the breach with the surrounding culture and language was complete and continuous, problems of adjustment, either of the group with the outside world, or of individuals to individuals within the group, seldom arose. However, when the breach has been only partial, or when individuals or a subgroup within the larger group become wholly or partially assimilated to the “outside” language, serious problems of internal adjustment have arisen. At times this has been a problem of adjustment between the generations, so that youth has come into conflict with age, and usually large numbers of the youth have been lost to the group and its faith and way of life. At other times factionalism has arisen, resulting in serious schisms. Conservative groups attempting to hold the language line have died out because of failure to adjust to the new environment. Successful maintenance of small language enclaves detached from any larger language culture body has resulted in cultural and intellectual impoverishment, frequently with attendant religious losses. The battle to maintain the language has usually been fought with religious sanctions which have at times gone to the extreme of claims of higher spiritual values for the mother tongue as compared with the new tongue and of forfeiture of group principles and even faith in God in case of surrender of the language. Usually the transition from one language to another has required two or more generations of confusion and turmoil with considerable loss of membership en route, as well as the diversion of much energy from constructive work. The effect in literary production and consumption by the group is also usually very detrimental.

Bender’s critical views are understandable from his exceptional biography: he was a forward-looking Mennonite who pursued higher education in both the US and Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg. His wife, Elizabeth Horsch Bender (1895–1988), was the daughter of Mennonite immigrants from Germany and studied German in college and graduate school, going on to devote her professional life to work as a teacher of German and translator. While not exactly Germanophiles, the Benders clearly shared the prescriptive outlook of contemporary educated speakers of European German and viewed the sociolinguistic situation of their Old Order (and Old Colony) brethren as spiritually deleterious. Bender concludes his 1957 essay as follows:

The language problem has been further complicated for the Mennonites by the maintenance of dialects or sub-languages, e.g., the Plattdeutsch among the Russian Mennonite immigrants in North and South America and the Pennsylvania-Dutch among the Old Order Amish. In such groups where the dialect has displaced the High German, at least relatively, the people have lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading, and therefore have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment.

Sometimes the theory of the cultural value of using two languages has been propounded to support retention of the “mother tongue.” Actually, it is probable that only highly intelligent persons who diligently pursue both languages on a literary level profit from this dualism. More common outcomes are the failure to master either language adequately, confusion of vocabulary and ideas, undesirable carryover of idioms from one language to the other (Germanisms in English and Anglicisms in German), and undesirable foreign accents which handicap individuals in their speaking and other expression as they move in public life.

The language problem has often become acute in the pulpit. Without diligent effort few preachers acquire the ability to preach well in a second language after middle age is reached, and they may be unwilling to pay the necessary price to do so. Consequently congregations have suffered in pulpit leadership because of preachers able to use only the older language. With the older generation of members unable or unwilling to accept a new language in the pulpit, they have denied their children and youth the privilege of religious teaching and worship in the new language, the only one which the latter fully comprehend.

Language problems are characteristic of all immigrant religious groups who find themselves in a new and strange language-culture situation. But these problems have been intensified among Mennonites by their distinctive emphasis upon nonconformity and nonresistance.

Time has proved Bender’s fears of spiritual impoverishment among tradition-minded Anabaptists largely unfounded. It is not correct to say that dialects like Pennsylvania Dutch “displaced” High German, since the latter language was always used mainly in the receptive (passive) domains of reading and writing. It is true that groups such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites have indeed “lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading.” Yet Bender overlooks the fact that sectarians are actively literate in English, meaning that the charge that they “have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment” is not supported.

Bender’s negative views on Old Order verbal behavior are reinforced by the notion that the mutual influence of languages on one another, a universal linguistic phenomenon, is a symptom (or cause) of cognitive dysfunction. He implicitly believes it is possible to be “doubly semilingual,” that is, having incomplete knowledge of two languages. Semilingualism occurs in only highly exceptional situations, such as among profoundly deaf people who are not exposed to a manual language (such as American Sign Language) in childhood. Traditional Anabaptist sectarians have never been doubly semilingual.

It is true that past generations of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers were often less proficient in English than their monolingual neighbors, and their knowledge of High German was always limited to certain specific domains of use, however their vernacular language is just as robust and grammatically complex a means of communication as any of the other roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Borrowing from one language into another (e.g., from English into Pennsylvania Dutch) does nothing other than enrich the receiving language’s expressive power. And in any case, the percentage of English-derived vocabulary in Pennsylvania Dutch is relatively modest, about 15%–20%. Compared to contemporary High German, whose lexicon contains between one-quarter and one-third “foreign” words (mainly from Latin, French, and Greek), and English, in which about 75% of its words have been borrowed from other languages, Pennsylvania Dutch is actually lexically “purer” than both the languages with which it is regularly negatively compared.

I’ll close with my favorite quote on Old Order language use, taken from the essay “What Is a Language?” by Amishman Benuel S. Blank (1933–2009).6

Knowing two languages is a privilege God has provided for us, and we can put them to good use. Although we have a knowledge of two languages, it would be wrong not to make an effort to express ourselves better in the English language. But it would be just as wrong to fail to keep and pass on the German to our children—that rich language our forebears left for us. It is a well-known fact that losing our mother tongue and drifting into the world usually go together.

Any time we speak English around the home when just family members are around, or while working or visiting with others who know Pennsylvania Dutch, we put in a vote to drop a rich heritage that will never be brought back if we lose it.

The value of that heritage is so great that we can’t afford to lose it.


  1. Glenn G. Gilbert (ed.), The German Language in America: A Symposium, University of Texas Press, 1971 
  2. See Christopher M. Hutton, Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-Tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Language, Routledge, 1999, chapter 6, “‘A complicated young man with a complicated fate, in a complicated time’: Heinz Kloss and the ethnic missionaries of the Third Reich,” pp. 144–187; Cornelia Wilhelm, “Nazi Propaganda and the Uses of the Past: Heinz Kloss and the Making of German America,” Amerikastudien/American Studies, 2002, pp. 55–83. 
  3. Gilbert (1971, 123) 
  4. Gilbert (1971, 126) 
  5. Harold S. Bender, “Language problem,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1957, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Language_problem&oldid=141204 
  6. Benuel S. Blank, “What Is a Language?”, Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16